My wife, Brenda, and I lived and worked in Richmond, Virginia, a town rich in history, a few years ago.On the east end of town sitting atop a hill in one of Richmond’s oldest neighborhoods, Church Hill, was St. John’s Episcopal Church. Still active, it was built in 1741.
One evening after work, Brenda and I decided to walk the three blocks up to the famous church where Patrick Henry gave his “Give me liberty or give me death!” speech. As we arrived, a reenactment of the famous speech had just taken place. It was quite impressive and dramatic.
There were several performers standing around in period costumes waiting for the crowd to disperse. Brenda and I decided we would take a break, too. We crossed the street to a nice city park, and sat on a bench under the trees waiting for the hustle and bustle to settle down at the church.
We returned to the church and found the only person still there was an elderly African American gentleman lumbering about. We thought he might have been the caretaker of the church waiting to lock-up. He was friendly, starting up a conversation asking us where we lived. We explained where we lived, and then in turn, asked him if he lived in Richmond as well. He laughed and said quietly, “Not only have I lived all of my life in Richmond, my family has been here since before the American Revolution.”
Seeming to be in no hurry, we started walking around the church, and the old man joined us. He said that he worked for the parish doing odd jobs and such, and that in fact, he had come to the church almost every day of his life with the exception of “the day it snowed three inches”.
“That’s a big deal in the South. We couldn’t go anywhere because of the snow,” he laughed.
“One of my ancestors, a slave, took care of the horses during the Second Virginia Convention right over there,” he pointed. He said his family had always talked about how George Washington, Richard Henry Lee, Thomas Jefferson and other important people arrived in their carriages, went into St. John’s Parish, and decided to unite against British rule once-and-for- all. “It was a turning point for America.”
“My daddy talked about how his father, my grandfather, had told the story how our ancestor stood outside talking with Patrick Henry, as he smoked a pipe, before going into the church.”
“According to my family, Patrick Henry rode up on horseback and dismounted just over by that tree,” the man said. The elder gentleman seemed sad for some reason. “Back then, we never started a conversation with white gentlemen unless we were spoken to first,” he continued.
“Mr. Henry was saddened by his ride to Richmond because he had passed the church where he and his wife had been married,” he continued.
“We had a wonderful family and a wonderful life together, but my wife was sick and couldn’t recover,” Mr. Henry told my ancestor. “I watched over her as she died at home, just a month ago. It is very hard for me for me to be here today. I didn’t feel like making the ride to Richmond, but our cause is so important. We must break away from the British.”
“Please excuse my dust. I just planted a lilac tree next to her grave this morning,” the man said Mr. Henry had told his cousin.
“And don’t you know, they say that tree is still there today,” the man told Brenda and me. “Just a few steps away from the house.”
“According to our family lore, it was just a few minutes later Mr. Henry walked into St. John’s Church and delivered his famous speech, ‘Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, Give me Liberty, or give me Death!’
“The people who came to this church that day were no different from you and me. They had families, personal problems and jobs, and they had a lot to lose by taking on the British Crown,” he ended.
To this day, we do not know if the stories the man shared with us about his ancestor and Patrick Henry were true or not. He might have just been a gifted storyteller who happened along that day, but we do know he held us spellbound for over an hour. True or not, it just felt good to hear the stories.
Two-hundred and thirty-seven years later, we still hear talk of America losing its liberties. On this Independence Day, maybe it’s time we stood-up, too.
Happy Fourth of July!
Pat and his wife, Brenda, lived in Virginia for 12 years before moving back to their native Ohio where Pat serves as a Clinton County Commissioner. While in Virginia, he worked for the Henrico County Sheriff’s Department, was as a member of Governor Jim Gilmore’s administration, and worked on the personal staff of Sixth District Congressman Bob Goodlatte. He is an author and presenter on issues related to organizational change and law enforcement accreditation, publishing in the Virginia State Police Bureau of Criminal Investigation and the Virginia Criminal Intelligence Association Magazine, The Validator. A published author, Pat wrote The Danes Murders: Lost Innocence in Lees Creek, a non-fiction account of the murder of a Clinton County family, and recently released his second book, The Storyteller: Growing up in Clinton County, Ohio.